As the first 100 Tomahawks crashed into their targets, the same doubts that tried to preemptively disarm them prepared their return volley.
Odyssey Dawn cannot achieve decisive results in Libya, and even if it can, the opposition should be left to finish its own revolution. Western military intervention risks a host of unintended consequences including civilian casualties, a humanitarian crisis, new propaganda by Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi, and “legitimacy” for various anti-Western elements such as Iran and the Taliban. President Barack Obama has drawn additional criticism for green-lighting U.S. military operations without Congressional approval, a charge the administration denies.
And those anticipating the loss of Arab League cover were seemingly proven correct after Secretary-General Amr Moussa criticized the initial air-strikes: "What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians."
Most members of the U.S. Congress, if not every Representative and Senator, agree in principle that Gaddafi’s onslaught must be halted and reversed. Condemnation of inaction would likely exceed the blame of action; the difference in opinion stems from objectives, time-lines, and responsibility. Libya could be headed for a protracted struggle after Gaddafi vowed a “long war,” and many observers fear a quagmire if his staying power emulates a 1990’s Saddam Hussein.
However the Obama administration only bears responsibility on one count, and enough concern has directed itself against a slow response - an ironic product of Obama’s desire to seek an international consensus. The deadly effects on Libyan protesters are well documented. Of more immediate consequence are the political and military factors, as a delayed no-fly zone allowed Gaddafi’s counter-attack to nearly exhaust the rebels’ position and spirit.
Saved from Gaddafi’s armor at the last moment, they had no one to blame for this mistake except themselves.
Libya’s opposition nearly paid the ultimate price for its miscalculation and ignorance of guerrilla warfare, but the highs and lows of battle also provided them with the experience necessary to finish their revolution. Many mistakes can be excused by the power vacuum they suddenly found themselves in. The encouraging sign is that opposition officials and fighters have acknowledged their missteps, and vow not to repeat them.
Jubilant but confused to find themselves in possession of cities and territory over a span of weeks, Libya’s opposition hastily organized itself into local units before the National Transitional Council took command on February 27th. Nearly a month later Ali Tarhouni, the opposition’s Finance Minister, told journalists in Benghazi that the Council, "in general dropped the ball many places, although not by intention." He cited a widespread lack of experience in public associations, largely banned by Gaddafi.
Magnifying the difficulty of their task beyond Egyptians or Yemenis, Gaddafi didn't hesitate to bombard peaceful demonstrators with tanks, helicopter gunships, warplanes, and naval forces. Thus the plight of Libya’s opposition allows little room for second guessing. Their dilemma set in even deeper once Gaddafi’s forces besieged those cities under opposition control. Urban warfare offers many hiding spots but few places to run, and the rebels initially followed guerrilla trapping maneuvers by allowing Gaddafi’s forces inside the cities.
Mounting a stiff, frontal defense would have gotten them killed anyway, and many of Gaddafi’s superior-armored forces were beaten back despite heavy rebel losses.
But political chaos soon transferred into the front-lines. From protesting Gaddafi under hails of bullets, the opposition found itself waging full-scale urban warfare roughly overnight. Political and military defections began within a week and gave way to set battles, and the pace of the revolution began to outstrip its revolutionaries’ capacity. Though some held applicable positions beforehand, many were recruited right off streets: restaurateurs, mechanics, bakers, orthodontists, lawyers. As many newly-minted revolutionaries found out after several days of military training, spirit alone doesn’t make them invincible.
How the opposition should have reacted in the revolution’s early moments is difficult to question. Easier is the opposition’s hasty decision to march on Tripoli.
Halumi participated in the rebel advance west from Benghazi, riding high through Marsa Brega, Ra’s Lanuf, and Bin Jawad. Enjoying swift victory and military bounties, “we’d won so much so fast, we were just believing in God and convinced there was no way we could be stopped.” Halumi trained for four days under defected military officials. Two weeks later he found himself retreating for his life, with the loss of his friends hanging over his head. Halumi says he was among the last fighters to escape from Ras Lanuf.
Hundreds of supporters were killed during Gaddafi's counter-attack, a systematic conquest of towns and cities temporarily occupied by the opposition. In Ajdabiya, the opposition’s last stronghold before Benghazi, hardcore rebels had armed themselves with knives and small arms when Gaddafi bypassed the city. The opposition had depleted its arsenal and most of its hope. Although Western air-strikes created a security bubble around Benghazi, fighters continued to retreat past its lines to set up neighborhood watch groups. Many still voice concern or outright distrust in the opposition’s political and military establishment, some of which was forced to flee the country.
"We were betting 24 hours and he's gone from the country," admitted Tarhouni, an economics professor at Washington University. "Now we're looking at longer. He's much more armed, and we're not as organized as we thought or can be."
Yet a kernel of truth centers this duality. Despite the opposition’s self-admitted and visibly evident disorganization, the revolution’s current phase cannot be discounted entirely. A guerrilla has four stages: subversion and sabotage, mobile warfare, semi-conventional operations, and a total transition to conventional warfare. During the final stage a guerrilla becomes a legitimate political or military actor of the state.
Libya’s opposition found itself caught between the second and third stage - a strong but awkward point to reach. Pure revolution, minus the training and preparation of devoted Maoists or Vietcong, had come to resemble a civil war. Libyans were swept off the streets into battle against fellow Libyans, rapidly morphing from protesters to soldiers, because the revolutionary wave unleashed a large quantity of stored energy. Libya’s opposition vastly exceeded the incubator stage of political subversion and organization, having discredited the government while seeding fear inside it.
Despite his best efforts to suppress them, Gaddafi’s opponents patiently awaited the hour of revolution for decades. And although they couldn’t function as one unit when the bell tolled, the masses rose up in an instant.
Libya’s opposition ran into the same wall that has greeted Maoists, Greek Communists, and the Taliban - too much early success. Rapid expansion of territory and soldiers, if uncontrolled, becomes a burden to the revolution and an easy target for the government. Even guerrilla armies numbering in the ten of thousands pose no match for a modest conventional army. And once Libya’s guerrillas lost their focus on mobile warfare and avoiding costly battles, they exposed themselves in sizable numbers to the government’s air-force, an especially deciding factor in desert insurgency.
One rebel commander, Mohamed Hariri, described his men as "brave to the point of being suicidal.” Guerrilla commanders want to bottle this suicidal spirit without having to spill it. Mustafa Gheriani, a Council spokesman, recently articulated the point well: "It's not an easy task to manage revolutionaries, and we're still trying to organize them. These are volunteers willing to die for their cause, and they can be difficult to control."
While Gaddafi literally defeated their forces in the following weeks, Libya’s opposition ultimately defeated itself. Little could be done about the costly battles for Benghazi, Az Zawiyah, and Misurata, but the western assault on Tripoli reversed the revolution’s cycle and interrupted its time-line. Burning with revolutionary fire, rebels launched a lightning assault on Marsa Brega, Ra’Lanuf, and Bin Jawad. All the while Gaddafi planned his counter-attack in Sirt, and successfully infiltrated Bin Jawad during the night as the rebels organized to advance.
The opposition would mount a stiff resistance two weeks later at Bengazhi, but their revolution faced devolution to square one had NATO seized up.
Rather than advance forward after initial success, Libya's opposition should have consolidated their position, organized their ranks, and dispersed throughout the country to conduct mobile warfare, even while seizing conventional weaponry (which was often inoperable). Advancing towards Tripoli allowed Gaddafi to concentrate his forces. Instead his western stronghold of Sabha - and as far beyond as the rebels can reach - should be challenged through gradual infiltration. This movement leads away from Libya’s Arab demographic and into Taureg territory, admittedly increasing the risk of collateral and ethnic strife.
Yet subverting government territory is a main aspect of insurgency so long as it targets government property. Destabilizing valuable territory where the government doesn’t expect disperses its pieces, leaving rebel strongholds freer to operate politically and train militarily.
The opposition violated fundamental guerrilla law by seeking large-scale battles, and fell victim to the temptation to capitalize on sudden victory. Waiting a few extra weeks, or months, before marching on Tripoli would have maintained the revolutionary cycle. As the West needed to move quicker, the opposition needed to decelerate until the finishing blow could be struck with maximum impact. The situation had neared the tipping point. But a sounder strategy would have employed a classic insurgency of sabotage, hit and run attacks, and economic subversion, then waited for a no-fly zone before seeking a decisive outcome in the capital.
Until the final conventional stage, guerrillas must avoid decisive battles with a superior opponent. Only when success can be assured is the time ripe, otherwise the insurgency risks a multi-stage setback. Libya’s opposition sought a military decision before NATO’s equalization had commenced, leaving no assurance of success.
While revolutions are protracted struggles by nature, a reality that politicians despise, Gaddafi may have caved to a synchronized assault. Although this error was largely a matter of insufficient leadership, not individual errors on the front-line, it was nonetheless fatal. Fortunately the opposition knows it raced ahead of itself, and now the objective of revisiting the opposition’s evolution becomes clearer. One must understand the past to have any chance of predicting the future, and the opposition’s future strategy shouldn’t differ from what needed to be the initial strategy.
Libya’s revolutionary energy will regenerate the opposition’s losses. By following the guerrilla cycle and allowing it to fully mature before the final phases, Libya’s opposition and their Western muscle stand a good chance of finishing the revolution with relative conclusion.
"Our hope,” Obama recently told CNN, “is that the first thing that happens once we've cleared the space is that the rebels are able to start discussing how they organize themselves, how they articulate their aspirations for the Libyan people and create a legitimate government.”
The opposition is beginning to answer this hope and those questioning whether Libya’s opposition “has what it takes” to topple Gaddafi. They hear U.S. officials, watch U.S. news and understand the need for transparency, organization, and strategy. To restore a sense of order to this chaos, Libya’s opposition is reaching out to wage the insurgency it should have started with. Taking control over fears of who they are, whether al-Qaeda influences them or they’re “too Islamic,” the opposition has launched a comprehensive political message to rally their supporters and ease Western anxiety.
"Our capital is Tripoli and will forever be Tripoli," spokesman Nisan Gourian told Al Jazeera. "We are striving to liberate the western parts of the country, and Tripoli, and keep the country united. We would like to emphasize this over and over again."
Libya’s latest developments offer encouraging recognition that the political component trumps all other priorities in fourth-generation warfare. The objective of 4GW is to persuade people, not kill them, and image assumes a heightened importance. A clear ideological platform and organized political authority exponentially increases an insurgency’s military capacity. Political direction translates into battlefield success - that is the essence of guerrilla warfare. Halumi, now under orders in Ajabiya to hold his troops from advancing, explains, “we understand we need help, organization. We are going to be more methodical.”
"You need a political body that defines what this revolution is about, and an army on the ground," Tarhouni adds, “but we need to put our own house in order first."
The National Transitional Council now recognizes the “Libyan Republic,” as opposed to Gaddafi’s "Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.” Western governments are considering formal recognition, along with the consequences from the Arab League, African Union, and BRIC. The opposition also released a human rights document that pleased U.S. ambassador Gene Cretz. And Abdel Fattah Younes, Libya’s defected interior minister and head of Special Forces, was subsequently demoted from chief of the Libyan People’s Army due to his past intimacy with Gaddafi.
Although its new chief, Khalifa Huftur, also served under Gaddafi, he’s recently returned from exile and is viewed as a more neutral figure. Another exile, Omar Mokhtar El-Hariri, remains in control of the People’s Army and Air Force as the Council’s Minister of Military Affairs. Younes will stay on as Huftur’s chief of staff.
Meanwhile Air Force Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, the rebels' new military spokesman, recently acknowledged that no army exists to defend Benghazi, much less conquer the heavily-defended Tripoli. He says the army need "weeks" of training, a positive admission as longer preparation generally equates to a shorter outcome. Bani also admits that he doesn’t know where the training and weapons will come from, but guerrilla warfare feeds off the land.
Of course Western governments can speed up the process by lightly arming the opposition, and little danger is likely to come from this tactic. The proposal, already mandated by UN Resolution 1973, is being seriously considered and rightfully so. The key difference between Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and Libya is that the latter qualifies as a true war of liberation, not a proxy war with no objective other than wasteful destruction.
Still, only a modest amount of light arms and explosives should be injected into the conflict. The opposition should find the tools for sabotage and mobile warfare already available.
Whether they need heavy weapons depends on the effectiveness of NATO air-support, but Western states would be wise to bypass the rebels and retain this force themselves. The opposition has organized enough to coordinate air-strikes (and save an F-15 pilot), and an effective system could be worked out over time. The experience will rub off in a positive way given that any contact with Western military officials provides a learning opportunity. Sources within the Pentagon admit they’ve gone so far as to advise the opposition on future strategy, and they may be able to trap Gaddafi’s ground forces in the open.
The opposition doesn’t necessarily require heavy weaponry that the West can substitute for. Consequently, the rebels should stay light and mobile while leaving the hammering to NATO. Unless advised by foreign technicians, artillery and armor is more trouble than it’s worth to guerrillas.
A slow response to civilian massacres proved Obama's weakest moment, but the opposition only has itself to blame only for military rashness. The administration didn’t error in backing the European Union's use of force in Libya. The reaction in Benghazi flipped from “so, we’re being abandoned after all,” to “the French jets saved us all.” This salvation justified Western intervention, which would have made more enemies had it never arrived. Ahmad Dabbous, a clothing wholesaler turned guerrilla, triumphantly declared, “We'd lost hope, but Obama stood with us.”
Libya isn’t America’s problem so much as its policy outside of Libya. Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia could use more stories like those found in Benghazi.
Gaddafi’s forces still have some fight left in them. Although they’ve retreated from Benghazi for now, they continue to assault Zintan, Misrata and Ajabiya with rocket launchers, artillery, tanks, and the occasional gunship. NATO officials caution that while Gaddafi’s air-defenses are largely crippled, his ground forces remain a potent threat to the opposition. Desperation comes with the adverse effect of lashing out and the elite 32nd Brigade continues to fight without its head - Gaddafi’s 7th son Khamis.
But the opposition is now fighting the war it wants to fight - a ground war that Gaddafi is slowly losing the edge in. A weak, isolated government is no match for fully functioning guerrillas operating with majority support and foreign assistance in a large, sparsely populated country.
Libya’s opposition must train diligently throughout the coming weeks and months in order to re-enter stage three. Somewhat disturbing is their latest advance on Ajdabiya and Brega under Western air-cover; risking another setback is unnecessarily foolish. If they’re gunning for cities, they should also run cross-country sabotage and mobile raids as diversionary measures. By coordinating with NATO, they must spread Gaddafi’s forces and simultaneously achieve their political objectives. Once Gaddafi’s forces have been truly equalized the Libyan People’s Army can proceed in bulk, city by city, and crash into Tripoli at the height of their momentum.
Although revolution is a protracted struggle by nature, this strategy may be capable of delivering victory in the near future.